News Commentary

How the medical housing process reinforces ableism at Georgetown

April 29, 2022

Design by Insha Momin

There’s an unmatched agony I associate with the university housing process.

Each spring, housing season sends students into a mid-semester frenzy. Between solidifying roommate groups and hoping for a good lottery number, finding housing for the upcoming academic year is nothing short of complicated.

But my attempts to secure housing have always required more than the typical stress. Because rather than going through the regular on-campus housing process, I must navigate the seemingly infinite challenges of the medical housing process.

I have endured the medical housing process four times, each of which furthered my level of frustration and exhaustion. What I once looked forward to as a means of ensuring accessible campus housing I now understand as a task characterized by bureaucracy and ableism.

Medical housing is a resource provided by the Academic Resource Center (ARC) for students who require housing accommodations because of a disability, chronic illness, or other condition. To apply for university-provided medical housing, students must first submit a request form to the ARC along with documentation that verifies their condition. The ARC then works with Residential Living to place students in housing spaces that meet their accommodation requests. 

What may sound simple is, in reality, a confusing and strenuous process that has the ability to further the systemic harm that disabled students at Georgetown regularly face. 

One of the most immediate issues presented by the medical housing application process is that it encourages students to over-explain their reasons for seeking housing accommodations. Rather than asking for a basic disclosure of a disability-related need for medical housing—which can be verified by a health professional—the structure of the application often results in students having to over-elaborate on their conditions to “prove” why they need accommodations. 

When I applied for medical housing as a freshman, I was willing to do almost anything to secure the accommodations I needed, including going into an invasive level of detail about my needs on the initial request form. I didn’t really feel comfortable disclosing details about my disabilities to complete strangers, but I knew that the ARC were the ones who ultimately decided my living situation. It felt as if this was the only way that I could guarantee the access that I required.

Despite the isolation I felt during the process, I eventually learned that I’m not the only student who has felt pressured to overshare.

When Gwyneth Murphy (SFS ’23) was first accepted to Georgetown, she immediately requested medical housing for the coming fall. “My strategy was ‘I cannot be denied’—like, I needed this medical housing, so I would rather overshare than under share,” she said. 

Pressure to overshare is what disability scholars often refer to as forced intimacy: When disabled people are expected to disclose personal details of their disability just to obtain bare-minimum accommodations. The practice is a pillar of ableism, as it often gives able-bodied people deciding authority over whether or not a disabled person’s access needs will be met. 

This phenomenon is exemplified on the medical housing request form, where students are asked to share the reasoning behind their request. The form states that “there should be a clear connection between the request and the justification.” In my experience, though, such a form prioritizes a student’s justification over their access needs. The detail required by the request form shows just how fundamental forced intimacy is to the medical housing process.

When Elena Evans (NHS ’22) first applied for medical housing, it was immediately apparent that a basic disclosure of her conditions was considered inadequate by the ARC’s standards.

“It takes you having to divulge everything about your past, about your medical history—that is also not supposed to be shared—and pressures you to do it in a specific way by a certain deadline,” Evans said of obtaining accommodations.

But forced intimacy is merely one of many problems with medical housing. Even after students divulge the details of their condition and its related traumas, they still have to navigate the process’ bureaucracy.

The red tape inherent to obtaining housing accommodations requires communication with different offices (the ARC and Residential Living), which makes it easy for information to be lost and mistakes to be made, in turn only heightening the confusion associated with securing housing.

“There’s a lot of flaws with the way that [the process] functions, and a lot of miscommunication between the ARC and the Res Living,” Murphy said, reflecting on her experience freshman year. “It’s communication between dual departments that have different understandings of disability, and so that’s part of what causes the issue.”

Murphy is one of the students driving the push for a Disability Cultural Center, and the current GUSA Accessibility Coordinator. From her perspective, many of the issues with the medical housing process stem from how Residential Living treats disabled students.

“I think that Residential Living needs to undergo a full disability accessibility training—ideally student-led,” she said. “There need to be people in the ARC who are specifically dedicated to housing, as opposed to bridging two entirely different departments, because that just does not work.”

According to Evans, the ARC contributes to miscommunication and delays. In the process of pursuing accommodations for the current academic year, Evans was told that she hadn’t submitted her documentation to the ARC, despite having sent it several weeks before. She already had documentation from the previous housing cycle. The situation was only resolved after two months of back-and-forth emails and frustration, Evans said. 

“I did not feel respected at all,” she said. “It was some of the most blatantly disrespectful communication I’ve had with an official office.”

As someone whose medical housing experiences have been characterized by passive-aggressive email threads, I resonate with this sentiment. It reminds me that some people will always view my identity as a disabled person as an inconvenience that needs to be handled. 

“Clearly, we don’t matter to them,” Evans said, referring to the ARC. “I wonder what would happen if we had a disabled donor or big name. Maybe then we would actually start getting stuff done.” 

Logistical technicalities also complicate the process. Students pursuing accommodations are unable to apply a requested accommodation to an already chosen space; rather, they must list their accommodation requests, and then Residential Living identifies a space that meets them. However, the identified space will only meet the specified accommodations, nothing more. 

For example, if a student needs a single room, and lists only this request on their accommodation request form, they would likely get placed in a single room in a traditional residential building such as Southwest Quad. They wouldn’t be able to have a single in an apartment with chosen roommates—even if they were a rising junior or senior—because that would require justifying why they need a kitchen and why they should be able to name their roommates.

This procedure has made me feel that I must choose between having my access needs met and being a “typical” college student who wants to live with friends and cook my meals. It should be perfectly reasonable for the two to coexist without much effort on the university’s part.  

Murphy had a similar conflict when she was looking to live in the Muslim Interest Living Community (MILC), a living learning community (LLC) in Alumni Square.

Murphy had been accepted to MILC before her sophomore year began, providing her with a confirmed housing space before she even submitted her medical housing request.

What should have been a simple process of applying her housing accommodations to her designated space within MILC quickly became a logistical disaster. Residential Living had accidentally double housed her, assigning her to another space than the one in MILC.

When Murphy contacted Residential Living, they responded that they hadn’t realized that she applied to MILC, and that they had in fact overbooked the LLC. Understandably, Murphy was frustrated—and this intensified after Residential Living failed to rectify the situation.

“Rather than admitting their mistake and saying, ‘Okay, we’ll have to reevaluate who gets accepted or will have to make space,’ they told me that I would have to give up my medical housing accommodations or be kicked out [of MILC].”

This situation is not only frustrating, but also potentially illegal. According to non-discrimination laws for disabled people such as the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—laws that Georgetown is required to comply with for federal funding—students cannot be asked to give up their accommodations because of a mistake on the university’s part. 

“[The] accommodations process complies with applicable disability laws and is consistent with best practices in higher education,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to the Voice. Joe Fisher, the executive director of the ARC, contributed to the university statement.

Murphy, however, is not the only one to experience potentially illegal mishaps. When Evans was struggling to obtain accommodations for her senior year, she began researching non-discrimination laws applicable to students with disabilities. In fact, it was only once Evans mentioned these laws to the ARC that the office was able to resolve her months-long housing conflict in only a matter of hours. “It shouldn’t take me listing legalities in order to receive accommodations,” she said.

Upon further research, there are several parts of the medical housing process that threaten breaking the law.

A potential legal concern has to do with the deadlines. According to Section 504, students are welcome to request accommodations from the university at any given time. The ARC, however, implements a first and second consideration deadline for medical housing requests.

The university complies with the law by providing a rolling option, with requests processed on a weekly basis. “We do not refuse consideration of any requests regardless of when or in what format they arrive, but we do ask students to follow the University’s established procedures,” the university spokesperson wrote.

However, there is often a waitlist for medical housing, even after the first consideration deadline; so if you miss the official first consideration window, you’re not guaranteed the same availability of medical housing-designated spaces the second time around.

Of course, there is an organizational benefit to having priority deadlines for all medical housing requests. But the limited number of medical housing spaces makes the first consideration deadline feel like an ultimatum, despite it supposedly holding equal weight as second consideration and rolling ones.

Another questionable part of the medical housing procedures is the use of a standardized request form. Section 504 states that requests can be made in any format, including verbally or via email—formats that can be increasingly accessible in communicating disability-related needs. While a standardized form surely allows for the ARC to be more organized, its mandated use would be in violation of the law.

“The ARC will always make an effort to accommodate specialized requests for alternate ways of submitting information,” the university spokesperson wrote.

This point is not commonly known among students, though, considering the university’s established procedures include deadlines and standardized forms.

There are also the legally questionable matters of requiring students to disclose and document physical disabilities, requesting documentation to do more than verify a disability and its accompanying need for the requested accommodation, and asking students to accept alternative accommodations that do not meet their needs—something I myself have been asked to do.

“The ARC is consistently monitoring its policies and procedures to ensure that they are current, consistent, and accessible. The medical housing process is highly individualized. We want to achieve a fair and consistent process,” the spokesperson added.

Regardless of whether or not the university is in compliance with federal laws, it is essential that legality is not confused with accessibility—something that is especially important to Murphy.

“Just because you are avoiding a lawsuit, it doesn’t mean that you’re making your disabled students comfortable, happy, or able to access the community,” she said.

Perhaps the first step in achieving comfort and happiness is allowing students to apply their housing accommodations to a chosen space. Disabled students deserve to live in a space that is not only accessible, but also fun and comfortable—and they deserve to have more of a say in how all of these components can be integrated into their housing situation.

To Murphy, true access relies on the university completely rethinking its understanding of disability.

“Once the university understands that disability is bigger than law and bigger than medicine, I think their funding of things like training, their staff choices, their openness to hear critiques from disabled students, is all going to develop in a positive way.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the application for first consideration medical housing opened in February. The application opened in November.

Sarah Craig
Sarah is the Voice's Editor for Sexual Violence Coverage and resident higher education enthusiast. She is a first-generation student studying Culture and Politics and Creative Writing.

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